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"Tipping Points" for global warming: Mike Farrell as a pioneering climate scientist at Hollywood's The Blank

Mauna Loa Observatory.
Mauna Loa Observatory.

Once upon a time, scientists didn't know how to measure atmospheric carbon dioxide. Which is a strong and alarming signal that the atmosphere is changing. Then in the fifties a guy figured it out, using Big Sur trees that have served as California's lungs for centuries. That scientist set up some instruments at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, the best place the US could think of at the time to measure undisturbed air. Over decades he was able to show the progressive buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and his observations yielded a noticeable curve. In 1958, he measured 315 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere. In December, Mauna Loa Observatory measured 391 parts per million. 

Charles David Keeling died on my birthday in 2005, and when he did, Scripps Institute of Oceanography hailed him as a pioneer. To a climate reporter like me, he's something of a legend. The Keeling Curve is iconic. Scripps articulates the reasons why pretty well: 

"As a scientist, he will forever be remembered by one of the most recognizable graphs in science, the sloping curve that symbolically represents the atmospheric carbon dioxide record he derived. His pioneering work on atmospheric carbon dioxide fundamentally changed the way we view the planet and our role on it and firmly placed him in the pantheon of history's great scientists. He has left us with the eternal gift of his vast knowledge, but more importantly he left us and future generations with the gift of inspiration. His legacy will inspire future generations to follow in his footsteps in the quest for scientific discovery."

(And if you think a guy like that didn't have a hard time figuring out how to get money for his research, here's a fascinating digression.)

Now a Studio City writer and a local theatre company are developing a play based on that man. "Tipping Points," written by George Shea, is part of The Blank's living room series, tonight and tomorrow in Hollywood. 

Shea is one of the over-a-thousand-people who got arrested protesting Keystone XL outside the White House last summer. "The arrest itself was not particularly painful and difficult," Shea remembers. "Though I did spend time in a paddy wagon in August." Shea says he first heard about global warming while he as interviewing Kurt Vonnegut in 1988. Keeling's story has stayed with him, and as 

He approached veteran actor Mike Farrell, a Studio City neighbor, for the project, while Farrell was taking out his garbage. Farrell's own enjoyment of long solitary trips through nature helped give him a toehold for Keeling, who Farrell says was influenced by "his passion for nature. His love of the mountains. A sense of connection with the world around him is what got him started in this."

The Minnesota-born, Hollywood-raised Farrell appeared on M*A*S*H, produced films, and beyond his career as an actor has extensive experience as an activist. He compares global warming response to the death penalty; both, he says, are self-destructive acts. But he believes in the power of mounting evidence to sway hearts and minds…something Farrell says happened to Keeling himself. "He was not particularly concerned with the danger of amassing carbon dioxide," Farrell points out. But Keeling realized what he was observing. "And then he became really zealous in his desire to get people to understand the danger we're facing." 

Farrell acknowledges the dangers at the intersection of art and politics: preaching to the converted, for one; overloading an audience with facts, for another. "The issue for me is, the difference between a lecture and a theatrical piece." He says he hopes "Tipping Points" becomes the latter. I observed that Farrell seems to keep his activist work separate from his acting. "In a life like mine, it's not natural to separate them completely," Farrell told me. "When I can find something that marries the two, it can be quite fun." 

INCIDENTALLY: I'm familiar with The Blank because I went to see a friend in a play there last year. I don't know of other theatre companies' sustainability practices, but what The Blank does is pretty cool. For one, they count their carbon footprint. As much as they can: "This year, we have offset the carbon emissions of our casts, crews, board of directors and AUDIENCES for travel to and from every single production, rehearsal and meeting. We've also offset the day-to-day commute for our office staff." They also purchase green power from the LADWP. (Full disclosure: so do I.)

In the longer term, the Blank "plans to build or re-model a theatre facility under the guidelines set forth by the US Green Building Council, with the intention of achieving LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold or Platinum Certification." I have no idea how they're going to pay for that, and I'm no undying fan of LEED, but it makes sense to make energy efficiency mission critical in a theatre where the roar of the greasepaint is eclipsed by the wattage of the stage lighting.